Hemingway's first novel was arguably his best and most important and came to be seen as an iconic modernist novel, although Reynolds emphasizes that Hemingway was not philosophically a modernist. In the book, his characters epitomized the post-war expatriate generation for future generations. He had received good reviews for his volume of short stories, In Our Time, of which Edmund Wilson wrote, "Hemingway's prose was of the first distinction." Wilson's comments were enough to bring attention to the young writer.
|No amount of analysis can convey the quality of The Sun Also Rises. It is a truly gripping story, told in a lean, hard, athletic narrative prose that puts more literary English to shame. Mr. Hemingway knows how not only to make words be specific but how to arrange a collection of words which shall betray a great deal more than is to be found in the individual parts. It is magnificent writing.|
|—The New York Times review of The Sun Also Rises, 31 October 1926.|
Good reviews came in from many major publications. Conrad Aiken wrote in the New York Herald Tribune, "If there is a better dialogue to be written today I do not know where to find it"; and Bruce Barton wrote in The Atlantic that Hemingway "writes as if he had never read anybody's writing, as if he had fashioned the art of writing himself," and that the characters "are amazingly real and alive." Many reviewers, among them H.L. Mencken, praised Hemingway's style, use of understatement, and tight writing.
Other critics, however, disliked the novel. The Nation 's critic believed Hemingway's hard-boiled style was better suited to the short stories published in In Our Time than his novel. Writing in the New Masses, Hemingway's friend John Dos Passos asked: "What's the matter with American writing these days? .... The few unsad young men of this lost generation will have to look for another way of finding themselves than the one indicated here." Privately he wrote Hemingway an apology for the review. The reviewer for the Chicago Daily Tribune wrote of the novel, "The Sun Also Rises is the kind of book that makes this reviewer at least almost plain angry." Some reviewers disliked the characters, among them the reviewer for The Dial, who thought the characters were shallow and vapid; and The Nation and Atheneum deemed the characters boring and the novel unimportant. The reviewer for The Cincinnati Enquirer wrote of the book that it "begins nowhere and ends in nothing."
Hemingway's family hated it. His mother, Grace Hemingway, distressed that she could not face the criticism at her local book study class—where it was said that her son was "prostituting a great ability .... to the lowest uses"—expressed her displeasure in a letter to him:
The critics seem to be full of praise for your style and ability to draw word pictures but the decent ones always regret that you should use such great gifts in perpetuating the lives and habits of so degraded a strata of humanity .... It is a doubtful honor to produce one of the filthiest books of the year .... What is the matter? Have you ceased to be interested in nobility, honor and fineness in life? .... Surely you have other words in your vocabulary than "damn" and "bitch"—Every page fills me with a sick loathing.
Still, the book sold well, and young women began to emulate Brett while male students at Ivy League universities wanted to become "Hemingway heroes." Scribner's encouraged the publicity and allowed Hemingway to "become a minor American phenomenon"—a celebrity to the point that his divorce from Richardson and marriage to Pfieffer attracted media attention.
Reynolds believes The Sun Also Rises could only have been written in 1925: it perfectly captured the period between World War I and the Great Depression, and immortalized a group of characters. In the years since its publication, the novel has been criticized for its anti-Semitism, as expressed in the characterization of Robert Cohn. Reynolds explains that although the publishers complained to Hemingway about his description of bulls, they allowed his use of Jewish epithets, which showed the degree to which anti-Semitism was accepted in the US after World War I. Cohn represented the Jewish establishment and contemporary readers would have understood this from his description. Hemingway clearly makes Cohn unlikeable not only as a character but as a character who is Jewish. Critics of the 1970s and 1980s considered Hemingway to be misogynistic and homophobic; by the 1990s his work, including The Sun Also Rises, began to receive critical reconsideration by female scholars.